The bath of many names, Şıfa hamamı is where one could find a good deal of male-male “action.” Usually reference to it involves many desperate foreigners unable to find it and being horribly lost. It is actually quite easy to locate. From the Karaköy metro head to the other Golden Horn bridge, that is when standing at the metro facing Sultanahmet take Tersane Caddesi to the right until you get to the other bridge. The bath is all by its lonesome in an uninteresting boxlike building on the right side. The Sokullu Mehmet Pasha mosque is on the left.
I went with a friend. Not just any friend. One that I met last summer a year ago at a club and went home with. He was French. We reconnected randomly and he suggested that we meet and go to the bath in the late afternoon on a Saturday. A lovely idea I thought! I had never gone to a bath date, let alone with a lover or “one-night stand.” I let him lead, as he goes there on a semi-regular basis, I gathered.
The building was quite unappealing, which is rather deceiving. Inside the changing room and reception were very clean and rooms arrayed around the court on two levels. We were given one changing room for the two of us, the closest near the concierge area. As we changed we stole sly looks at one another in the brief moment when we were…well…briefless. We wrapped ourselves and headed into the bath. Ahead was a door to a bath complex of at least two rooms that we didn’t go into. More on that later. Rather we hung a right, walked down a long hallway with some peştemal clad men and turned left into the main room. It was quite impressive. A real historic bath, clean, marbled with a central gobek taşı and alcoves in every corner that had entryways. I was impressed. This was no dank mildew peeling basement. Men were everywhere. On the gobek taşı, on the sides, in the alcoves. Everywhere. They were mainly hairy and some balding and some with big bellies and older, mainly 40s and up, working class by the looks of it, bus drivers, cab drivers. Most were alone, glancing at us as we walked in. No, scratch that. Staring. And staring hard. Only one or two were interacting with one another. We picked an alcove with the least amount of people in it; there were two. We sat together in a corner opposite them. Within minutes one had his peştemal open and was rubbing himself while staring at us. The other soon did the same. My friend and I were leaning against each other, shoulders touching, knees touching, feet touching. We were quietly chatting, occasionally pouring water over ourselves to cool down, ignoring the surroundings. It was sweet, relaxing, and I felt myself begin to let go, despite the staring strokers. We touched each other gingerly on the hands and shoulders, and then he kissed me. It was romantic and erotic…and I was freaking out. Just a little. Why? From my wanderings, I had constructed a highly sexualized top/bottom active/passive binary view of Turkish male – male sexuality. This affectionate display of intimacy had no part of it. Never once in a bath did I see men kiss. But this felt revolutionary. I loved my friend’s bold move in…well…just kissing me. I thought (my thoughts changed rapidly), well, all of these Turks who are constrained by showing public affection can feel comfortable watching this and perhaps feel bold or inspired to follow suit. Here in this bath we were safe. And they were all watching us. Of course, no one followed suit. To my dismay, not soon after we started, the keseci interrupted to inform us that he was ready to give us our massages. I felt like dad just walked in on us and quickly resumed composure and arranged my peştemal delicately.
The keseci was kind of hot. Perhaps the fittest one I’d ever seen. I thought this maybe a feature of more sexualized hamams where men know to go but then saw the other one, a rather large man with an unfortunate and massive tumor in his abdomen. I was reminded of Cihangir Sauna where there is a hunchback keseci. Is it that here in the seclusion of the hamams, these men with visible disfigurements can feel hidden from the public throughout the day? I was glad our keseci was the hot one. He gave us our massages and keses on the bench in the long interim hallway between two marble basins. I wanted to follow my friend out to watch his massage but the keseci and interestingly, other bathers, indicated that I shouldn’t. Maybe this was a private bond. My friend took my hand and I followed him. Another revolutionary move, I thought. I watched in relaxed disinterest as he scrubbed, soaped, and massaged my friend. It was kind of fun to watch, actually. After, during my turn, I enjoyed the scrub/rub. It was better than most. Not the longest, but he was really working hard as he massaged me and making heavy breathing and grunting noises reminiscent of tennis players at Wimbledon.
Afterwards, we returned to the bath and to another corner alcove. The stroking man from the first somehow materialized and poised himself across again, picking up where he left off. We left and wandered down the hall and let ourselves into the bath across the hall of the entrance. It was closed off, or at least I assumed this judging by the broom angled across the entrance and through the door handle. Inside was beautiful and empty. Feeling guilty we went back in the main bath. Now on the side of the main bath is a door that men were randomly going in and out of. I had observed this for the entire time and we went to check it out and it looked like two small semienclosed sauna type rooms with men in them and men waiting outside in the small narrow entry and so we didn’t linger. That is for next time. We returned to an alcove, and to our little corner. The bath was still full of men. Two men were talking with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were younger but with chest hair and facial hair and muscular bodies. They stood out. At this point when we returned to the alcove I realized that my friend and I were smooth or nearly smooth chested with no facial hair and easily the most attractive. We were the main attraction. We settled into our corner, and began kissing again, moving further, exploring under peştemals. The stroker had appeared yet again, sitting across, and going at it fully now, his extended foot rubbed against mine purposely. My friend and I were a live show for the bath, despite our attempts at discretion and privacy. I so wanted to stay and enjoy the moment to completion but this nagged at me a little too much. I whispered in his ear that we should go back to his place, and so as we were both hot and heavy, the air charged, the stroker stroking, we got up and left. Upon leaving I peeked into the closed off bath again, hoping we can resume there, and to my surprise there were two figures: a man and a woman who was topless and laying down a pestemal for the man. Embarassed, I hurried out. A hired masseuse? Prostitute? I never did find out.
My friend and I changed and headed back to his house, caught a movie, he cooked me dinner, and I spent the night. And so the bath was but a prelude, an erotic and intimate one at that.